On Your Bike
Being a bicycle courier is incredibly dangerous. In terms of days lost through injury it’s up there with farming, meat-packing and deep-sea fishing. Most couriers are classified as self-employed subcontractors for tax purposes, but many courier companies treat them as contracted employees. The freedom to chose what work you do turns out to be a mirage: turn down a job or two and you’ll quickly be asked to hand back your radio and find a new company to work for.
It’s also badly paid. At CitySprint, one of London’s largest courier companies, a low-priority bicycle delivery from EC2 to SW1 pays the rider £1.25. The company defends its rates by arguing that no courier is ever asked to go on these schleps across the city with just one job in the bag: if you’re quick you can pick up several packages in one part of town and deliver them all at the other end. But what you’ll earn for the work is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago.
In the past, unionisation has proved tricky for a workforce composed largely of economic migrants and people flying under the tax radar. The few who earn good money fear that a minimum wage might eat into their earnings, so the industry has been involved in a slow race to the bottom. For years the only support has come from the courier community, provided by alleycat fundraisers and the London Courier Emergency Fund, which pays out small amounts to riders injured on the road. The LCEF is funded entirely from donations from couriers and their friends.
Earlier this year a group of couriers formed a Couriers and Logistics Branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which has had some success working with outsourced cleaners at the University of London. In a film made by the union, couriers explain why they love the job but also how exploitative the work can be. One recalls carrying £50,000 in cash to Coutts bank and getting paid £2. Presumably the cash was insured; the rider almost certainly was not.
Last month the union began organising a campaign against CitySprint, arguing for a rise in job rates that would provide a salary in line with the London Living Wage. They sent letters to CitySprint’s largest clients detailing their grievances, and tried to open negotiations with management, but were ignored.
Last week they announced a cycle-ride-cum-protest to draw attention to their cause, and yesterday Jeffrey Ritterband, CitySprint’s head of London operations, responded, saying that ‘an equivalent hourly income’ for their fleet of bicycle couriers is ‘£10.48, which is 14.5% higher than the London Living Wage.’ The union contests the figures, arguing that CitySprint ‘have backed up this assertion with zero evidence’ and that in any case average pay doesn’t address their call for a minimum wage for all workers. Ritterband also doesn’t mention that CitySprint riders are obliged to rent their equipment – branded courier bag, radio and ‘Citytrakker’ handheld computer – for £24 a week.
This morning, couriers gathered at CitySprint’s head office. People blew vuvuzelas and waved banners saying ‘We Dodge Death to Meet Your Deadlines’ and ‘Your Profits are Made at Our Loss’. Natalie Bennett addressed the protesters, but no one from CitySprint would talk to them. The protesters then rode around London, visiting some of the company’s most high profile clients – ITV, PWC, Goldman Sachs and HSBC.
In 2013, CitySprint made a post-tax profit of £4.6 million. In 1995, the average pay for carrying a package across London on a bicycle was about £2.75. Today the three hundred or so bicycle couriers who work in the capital earn much the same as they did then.